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The Collector I

The Collector I
signed and dated ‘Ghenie 2008’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
200 x 290 cm. (78 3/4 x 114 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2008
Nolan Judin Gallery, Berlin, Germany
Private collection, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Anette Hüsch, Matt Price, Juerg Judin, ed. Juerg Judin, Adrian Ghenie, Hatje Cantz, 2009 (illustrated, cover and pp. 62-63).
Gent, Belgium, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuelle Kunst, Adrian Ghenie, 3 December, 2010 – 27 March, 2011.
Special notice
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Lot Essay

Monumental in scale and cinematic in scope, Adrian Ghenie’s The Collector I is a masterpiece of painterly and psychological drama. In a dimly-lit room, a man sits upon a sofa, surrounded by artworks: countless picture-frames fill the walls, and are stacked against one another on the floor. Working in visceral tones of crimson and mauve, Ghenie scrapes and marbles the pigment into sharp planes of colour that echo the works of Gerhard Richter. The frames flash with glints of gold. The man’s face is lit with chiaroscuro clarity; elsewhere, liquid pigment drips down the walls in shifting, iridescent layers. Painted in 2008, in the same year as the world record Nickelodeon, this is the first and most spectacular work in Ghenie’s landmark series of four canvases on the subject of ‘the collector’. Drawing together political and art-historical narratives, these works are virtuosic essays on themes of power and desire. The protagonist is Göring and his position allowed him to assemble a collection of thousands of artworks. Within an oeuvre that asks how we process images of historic figures, Ghenie’s portraits  stand among his most psychologically charged. In the present work, he is depicted surveying his spoils, spotlit at the heart of a tableau of collecting mania. It is a picture of a man haunted by art: one who ‘sacrificed his humanity for his obsession’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in J. Neal, ‘Adrian Ghenie’, Art Review, December 2010, p. 69).
Born in Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and currently based in Berlin, Ghenie has long been fascinated by the darker forces that shaped the twentieth century, and which continue to impact our present. He often works from black-and-white photographs he finds online, centring on powerful figures and pivotal moments that have left indelible marks on history. These have included scientists, artists and dictators, with a particular emphasis on the legacy of the Second World War. Far from traditional portraits, Ghenie’s human subjects are typically used as vehicles for examining our relationship with the past. His depictions, he explains, are thus something of an exception. ‘I was more interested in his personality’, he asserts; ‘for me, he truly embodied the archetype of the rapacious collector. I tried to grasp the psychological complexity of this man driven by a collecting bulimia, which in the end was totally compromised by his power’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise and Fall’ Flash Art, November-December 2009, p. 49). In The Collector I, Ghenie works from a photograph taken at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. With his textural, Technicolor reimagining, he gives the monochrome source-image an enthralling new life, transposing his subject into a palace of paintings that merges fantasy and reality. Ghenie’s rich surface is layered, mutable, ambiguous and complex: each blank picture-frame might be a screen, window or mirror to a new way of seeing.
In tandem with his dialogue with historical events, Ghenie’s work is animated by a deep love for the history of art. In a visual sense, he, too, is a collector, taking a magpie-like approach to what he sees. As a young painter, he sought to emulate artists like Rembrandt, to whom he had been drawn since he was a child: he hid this interest from his teachers at the art academy in Cluj, who advocated an Abstract Expressionist style of painting. As his practice deepened, he began to enfold a kaleidoscopic array of allusion into his works, drawing on centuries of painterly achievement. In The Collector I, an Old Masterly grandeur defines the darkness; the shadowed face echoes the turbulent, ghostly forms of Francis Bacon; abstract passages invoke Richter’s scraping technique and the bloodshot visions of Chaim Soutine. ‘You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition,’ Ghenie explains. ‘The pictorial language of the twentieth century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilize in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting—a painting of the image as such, of representation’ (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, Adrian Ghenie: Darwins Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 31).
Ghenie understands painting as a space of illusion. Like a cinema screen, the canvas is a surface for projecting stories through color and form. ‘I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state,’ he has said, ‘and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours you’re completely under its spell! … I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting’ (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Pop, in ibid., p. 83). He especially admires the work of David Lynch, whose disquieting, dreamlike movies are laden with the sense that dark and mysterious currents are at work behind the scenes. It is no accident that Ghenie’s paintings are composed with a virtuoso sense of light, performance and suspense. The present work is constructed like a stage-set. Light breaks through from the upper left, spotlighting the collector in dramatic focus. The picture-frames pile up into unstable profusion, as if ready to engulf the painting and its subject entirely. As pictures within a picture, they play a self-referential game with the painting as a gateway to alternative worlds.
While he revels in painting’s theatricality, Ghenie—who typically first views his source images on a laptop—also sees the medium as a way of restoring material reality to the contemporary gaze. He speaks of remembering his own favorite paintings by their ‘temperature’: of experiencing them somatically, sensually, in a way that cannot be replicated through a flat digital display. ‘My generation knows what life was like before the Internet’, he says. ‘And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect’ (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, in ibid., p. 32). By splicing, remixing and deconstructing different modes of representation, Ghenie’s paintings examine the various artificial lenses through which we see our present, as well as those which overlay our past. The Collector I shimmers like a mirage, on the verge of melting away. Yet to encounter it is also to feel painting as a visceral, physical and vital presence. While Ghenie explores the dark places where obsession can lead, he also celebrates paint’s power to help us see the world more clearly and thus, perhaps, to imagine better ways into the future.

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